MIAMI – The starting lineup changes almost daily. The lead scorer is in various pains, the lead rebounder has a bad wrist, the assist leader has a sore knee, and the 3-point team record holder wears a cast on his shooting arm.
In addition, almost every game comes down to the final moments. And quite recently, Best free throw night in NBA history was what was required for a one-point victory.
The Miami Heat, the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, still believe that a deep playoff is possible. But with a 22-20 record in one game in the second half of the season and stuck in 8th place in the East, the Heat also know it’s time to start piecing together wins.
“This is the start of season two,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday after a 112-111 win over Oklahoma City. “I feel something. I think there’s something in the locker room. But we also have to prove it. We know it. Many of them just end up talking at this point. But we feel encouraged. Even with all the moving parts, injuries and missed games, we feel like something is going on.”
It was one step forward, one step back for the entire season for the Heat. In December, they had their season’s best four-win streak, and in November their season’s worst four-loss streak. They didn’t hit the .500 mark for the first time until Game 30, and their current spot — two games over .500 — is in line with their best performance of the season.
They have up to 18 different starting lineups this season, seven in their last nine games. Jimmy Butler leads Miami in scoring; he missed time with a knee injury and had a sore wrist on Tuesday as the Heat set an NBA record 40-for-40 from the free throw line, with Butler making 23 of those shots.
“I think that’s what I signed up for to be able to play at a high level no matter who we have next to each other,” Butler said. “I don’t have a hard job. Spo does. He’s trying to mix and match guys, make them feel comfortable, trying to tell them where to be on the court and how to play which game, when to play which game. There’s a lot going on.”
Bam Adebayo missed the game with a bad wrist, Kyle Lowry with a floppy knee, Tyler Herro with an inflamed Achilles and Caleb Martin with a quadriceps strain. Usually all four were launched. The hope is that at least some of them will return on Thursday, when Miami kicks off a two-game home streak with the Milwaukee Bucks, with Game 2 scheduled for Saturday.
Other Heat players won’t be returning anytime soon, if at all. Duncan Robinson, the Heat’s all-time 3-pointer, has had surgery on his right hand. Rookie Nikola Jovic solves a back problem. Reserve center Omer Yurtseven has undergone ankle surgery and has not played this season.
The season has already been rough. Of the first 42 games, 29 were classified by the NBA as a “clutch” – this is defined as any five-point game with 5 minutes or less left. Hit 16-13 in these games, 9-6 in games deciding three points or less. There isn’t much margin for error, in large part because Miami’s average of 108.8 points per game is the lowest in the NBA.
“I love that feeling when you walk into the dressing room, when you feel the team starting to come together after adversity,” Spoelstra said. “You would like every team to come together like this. It doesn’t always work that way. Over the past three weeks, you feel that this group has become closer. I think everyone is a little refreshed, although everyone is a little tired. There is a feeling that in the second half of the season we will be able to do something special.”
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